The World of Gilbert & George Review

Over the past few years I’ve given plenty of coverage on this site to the small Austrian label Index. Now with a catalogue of 30+ titles, their focus, according to the promotional blurb, “is the work of singular Austrian artists”, a far-ranging remit that encompasses the likes of Kurt Kren, Josef Robakowksi, Martin Arnold and VALIE EXPORT. Unfortunately no such British equivalent exists, though LUX has recently entered into DVD distribution through their website and the BFI’s ‘British Artists’ Films’ range is steadily growing in scope. However, this particular disc could prove important as it’s the first from Media Tate and should hopefully kickstart a whole series of releases specialising in the British avant-garde. And if it is to be the first – as opposed to just a one-off – then it’s understandable that the Tate should go for a title such as The World of Gilbert & George; it’s from a pair of established artists, cult-ish ones even, who could potentially attract a wider audience than many of those who have dabbled, however fleetingly, in the film world.

Furthermore, The World of Gilbert & George is easily defined in cinematic terms. This is portrait cinema and as such sits easily amongst numerable documentary works (from Barbet Schroeder’s General Idi Amin, say, to Shirley Clarke’s self-explanatory Portrait of Jason), Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, Gordon and Parreno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait and installation pieces such as Sam Taylor-Wood’s David Beckham (though just to emphasise that it isn’t merely footballers who get the artists’ treatment, it’s worth noting that her subjects have also included Julie Walters and Duncan Goodhew). That said, it’s also one of those artists’ films that provides a portrait through indirect means, such as those of Jayne Parker, i.e. the themes are personal even if they do not appear to relate in a direct manner. However, a portrait of Gilbert & George, even an auto-portrait, was always going to prove tricky given the overt reliance on persona and performance in their work. The World of Gilbert & George has been described as simply another of their sculptures, albeit rendered in a different medium, and it’s easy to understand why: they’re an emotionless pair on-screen, straight-faced and inexpressive. Even their shared voice-over duties are devoid of any character save for the distinctive accents, thereby emphasising the manner in which the film resembles almost a catalogue, one detailing their concerns and predilections.

Revealing just a handful of these – food, religion, military heritage – should demonstrate that The World of Gilbert & George is as much a portrait of Britain as it is of the eponymous duo, if not more so. It’s also a fairly bleak one, presenting the early Thatcher years (the film was made between 1980 and 1981) as cold, tired and unhappy; Gilbert & George’s East End is conveyed primarily as grey and graffiti-strewn. It’s as though we’re watching a perverse blend of Humphrey Jennings’ 1940s cine-poems and the Last of England documentary-ish side of Derek Jarman. Although such a description could be misleading as The World of Gilbert & George is decidedly unadventurous when it comes to cinematic considerations, rather it builds through dull repetition and gains its momentum – maybe even its message – in this manner.

That’s not to say there isn’t humour, or indeed a certain documentary fascination to proceedings. The former comes through in the duo’s strange, occasional performance pieces: an odd domestic scene with banal dialogue emphasised by their unfeeling delivery; or those two moments when they let themselves go a little, once when drunk, the other time when enthusiastically dancing (if the term really applies) to ‘Bend It’. (And their partial, fleeting resemblance to Morecombe and Wise perhaps comes into play here.) The latter, meanwhile, comes through most obviously thanks to The World of Gilbert & George’s most intriguing addition, namely the interview material with various British male youths. Faced with standard questions (delivered off-camera) such as “What do you do with your time?” they offer the same ineffectual, bemused or just plain bored responses: chatting up girls, going down the pub, watching the football, nothing much really. Oftentimes it’s as though they’re purposefully matching Gilbert & George’s own lack of immediacy, though I doubt this is genuinely the case. Furthermore when combined with those greys and that graffiti, they can’t help but compound that feeling of eternal bleakness. Add the presence of ‘Jerusalem’ over the final images and we’re suddenly in the same British landscape as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Chariots of Fire or those ridiculously hyped-up trailers for Britain’s Got Talent. Odd bedfellows, but strangely fitting: each presents Britain in their own distinctive fashion.

The Disc

For a first release Tate Media’s handling of The World of Gilbert & George isn’t by any means an impressive package, though the very fact they’re making this film available on disc (as opposed to merely catching a few snippets on The South Bank Show - as was my the case with prior glimpses – or holding out hope for a television screening) should go some way to abating bad feeling. Extras are limited to brief liner results from Michael Bracewell meaning there’s no sign of Gilbert & George’s film and video shorts to back up the main feature. As such the disc houses simply the film itself in an un-restored, and admittedly unremarkable, fashion. The presentation is therefore hampered by conspicuous damage on both the screen and soundtrack. That said, we do get the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and mono (optional subtitles, perhaps unsurprisingly, are unavailable), and the film is never less than watchable. Interestingly, it’s also presented in NTSC form, no doubt with an eye on international sales, and thankfully comes without the conversions issues I had been expecting. Overall, then, it’s a case of being grateful for actually having this film available on disc, one that Media Tate will hopefully build on if they choose to continue with DVD distribution.

'The World of Gilbert & George' can purchased via Tate Online.

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